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It’s a tall story, I know….

As a member of the international online cyclists’ hosting community Warmshowers.org, we sometimes take in passing cyclists who are generally on a journey, sometimes of several days, sometimes of several weeks. When Bert messaged me about staying a night with us, all I had as an introduction was a brief profile on the Warmshowers website, so meeting him and getting to know him would be a journey of discovery.

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When I opened the door to greet him, we didn’t exactly meet face-to-face, because my own head height was directly in line with his chest. In fact I first noticed the enormous size of his bike before I raised my head to look him directly in the face. Bert stands at a cool 7 feet in height. When I got round to asking him how tall he was, his reply was “Too tall!”. And when I stood up next to his bike (which is probably a 4XL in size) his saddle height was chest high for me, and it was just as well we could give him a double bed to sleep in, so he could lie across it diagonally.

Bert was from Holland, and was spending 3 weeks of his annual leave (from his work as a research scientist) cycling around the south of England, and when he stayed with us, he was en route to the port of Harwich to catch his return ferry to the Hook of Holland. As with all guests who have stayed with us, it was a pleasure to host Bert, and there is every chance that we will meet up again sometime in the future.

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Did you know……?

Did you know you carry around with you an ‘anatomical snuffbox’? When I was told at A&E some 10 days ago that I had a suspected fracture to the scaphoid bone in my wrist, quite frankly I didn’t even know I had one of those……. my level of ignorance sometimes even astonishes me……

Scaphoid

When I came away from A&E, I had been told that a fracture was not evident from the X-rays, but fractures to the scaphoid bone commonly hide themselves, so they had to treat it as a suspected fracture until it could be confirmed either way at the fracture clinic. In the meantime, the only evidence was the way I jumped and winced when the specialist nurse prodded and (gently) twisted my wrist, and the area where I was most ‘responsive’ was in the anatomical snuffbox.

snuffbox

To cut a long story short, when I went to the fracture clinic 9 days later, a young registrar studied the X-rays again (and again), did a lot of prodding and flexing of the wrist (to which I had scant reaction), was on the point of sending me a further set of X-rays………but in the end decided to discharge me. Having told Jenny repeatedly over the previous days that I thought I had a ‘phantom fracture’, I looked at her and went “Yes…..I was right”!!

IMG_20170919_144017So, needless to say, the last few days have seen a few celebratory rides……..and today’s was a 47km bash to the north to get me in the mood for having a tooth surgically extracted by the dentist…..which was done just a few hours ago.

The trials of life…….!

Best laid schemes o’ mice and men…..

Well, Jenny and I were all primed and ready to head off on a ferry at midnight tonight, but those wretched ‘schemes o’ mice and men’ got in the way….. and I blame the hapless mice….

The tandem was ready, Jenny had nearly done the impossible and squeezed 10 days worth of clothing into one pannier bag, but I had decided to have just one last ride out to meet one of my cycling clubs, at a nice country tearoom…..but I tell you, these nice country tearooms are sometimes not all they seem, they can be dangerous places. No, I didn’t swallow a fork, or choke on a piece of cake….. all I did was step down onto some damp wooden decking that happened to be standing in for an ice rink……and before I could say ‘toast and marmalade’, I was ‘decked’ on the slippery decking, wondering how the heck I had gone from vertical to horizontal so quickly.

Having checked myself over and decided it was really only my pride that had taken a bashing, I informed the owners of their negligence (not so rudely of course), they whipped out the elf ‘n safety notices, and I set off to ride the 20 miles home, thinking nothing more about it.

It wasn’t till late that afternoon that I began to notice twinges in my wrist…..and the twinges turned into discomfort, and the discomfort turned into identifiable pain……..and to cut a long story short, after a late evening visit to A&E, and after several X-rays, they decided I had a fracture in the scaphoid bone….and I didn’t even know I had one of those…..😁

IMG_20170907_183811768So the long and the short of it is…… tandeming the Rhine will have to wait for a more auspicious moment…….a time when I can steer, operate the gears and brakes with total confidence……because Jenny refuses to be captain…..🤔

Now where are those wretched mice……?

Breathless at elevation……

As La Vuelta a España reaches its highest point ever in the Sierra Nevada, at over 2,500 metres (a climb I once tackled in the month of April back in the 1980s, only to be turned back by the snow), I took to analysing the background stats of my own ride today, which took me down into the ‘Bedfordshire Alps’. I share these charts with you because the visual effects are so startlingly different.

This chart is a screenshot of what I see on my laptop screenUntitled

…and this one is (on the very same MapMyRide website) what I see on my phone app:Screenshot_20170903-194806

The former makes it look as if I’ve just had a very pleasant amble over gently undulating countryside, whereas the latter has taken me into an alpine environment, with steep murderous climbs, and scary perpendicular descents. Of course, I prefer the latter interpretation……wouldn’t you?

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But when I tell you that the highest point of my ride was only 132 metres, compared to today’s stage of La Vuelta, that’s the equivalent of being below sea level, and going downhill. And then I discovered the elite riders were climbing for 20km at an average speed of 35kph (let me repeat that…..an average of 35kph), a speed I’d be happy to achieve on the flat with a supporting wind behind me…….

If only I were a 30-something once again……..

The fetterlock and falcon of Fotheringhay

The fetterlock and falcon of Fotheringhay

On my 80km (50 mile) sortie into north Northamptonshire this morning, I sped through villages like Coppingford, Glatton, Lutton, Fotheringhay,  Southwick and Stoke Doyle, all of them small communities with fewer than 100 inhabitants, but all of them with houses built in the singularly attractive stone of the area, and churches that have been cared for and restored over the last thousand years.IMG_20170901_111643959

It is astonishing that a community the size of Fotheringhay (80-90 inhabitants) can afford to pay for repairs to the church’s lantern tower, the scaffolding for which is probably taking the best part of a week to build. But a quick bit of research has uncovered that the community was given a grant of some £54,000 to repair the lantern tower, and that over recent years, they have managed to raise nearly £1.5 million for general repairs to the fabric of the church.

Fotheringhay, as small as it is, has played a major role in this country’s history. Not only was it the birth-place of Richard III, but the Castle (which now no longer exists) was the place of execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. If you study the photograph carefully, you will see an insignia at the top of the tower: a falcon within a fetterlock, the symbol of the House of York.

Study the map below, and the stretch of road from Wadenhoe (in the west) to Old Weston……..remarkably straight, and almost as if my phone had lost contact with the gps signal. Well, here in the UK, a straight stretch of road frequently indicates the one-time presence of the Romans, and this stretch is precisely one such inheritance.

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Doing it the Dutch way….

The freedom and  versatility of the bicycle as demonstrated by the Dutch…..is this not what it is  all about?

Moreton-in-Marsh to Kimbolton 120km

The last route ridden of the CTC Birthday Rides, the last pints drunk, and after the reluctant farewells to companions of the road it was time to de-camp, pack up the dew-sodden tent, and ride the 75 miles home. I had a ‘grand plan’…….make the National Trust property Upton House on Edgehill (of the famous battle) my first cake stop…….grand plan it was not because I made a needless ascent of a 16% gradient only to find this……

I will keep the expletives as a valve for the release of my own inner frustration….

….but I was cheered up by a gentle breeze coming from my right flank, this pub sign….

….and being welcomed home by Jenny to a superb meal that just happened to complement a nice glass of ‘savvy blank’ (kiwi for ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, if you didn’t already know).

Woodstock-Blenheim 95km

Mention both Woodstock and Blenheim Palace and most people will acknowledge familiarity with both iconic sites, the first for its music festival and the second as the creation of the Duke of Marlborough and ancestral home of Winston Churchill.

We poked our noses through the gate of Blenheim to view the estate from the end of the drive, but noticed there was a footpath sign through the grounds…..but how did people get in? Simple really, there was a button to press to summon someone to open the gate…..remotely we presumed.

Then we took a pause on a grassy embankment, and was asked by a fellow cyclist which way we were going……and we all answered in unison “That way”!

Today’s ride was an undulating journey round small villages, but silly me, I forgot to switch on my mapping app, so can’t display the route here. So in its place, you can admire the juxtaposition of my bike next to this lime green machine tied up a lamp post…..I wonder who put it there?

Wellersley-Hailes Abbey 65km

Settling into a foursome, with Edward and me on solos, and Alex and Jean on a tandem, we headed across open rolling countryside to have a relaxing tea ‘n cakes in what seemed like a domestic cafe, sitting in the courtyard amongst the drying washing, and popping upstairs to use the family bathroom as a necessarium. So relaxed were we that Alex nodded off…..

I took an hour out to check out Hailes Abbey, a 12th century Cistercian Abbey that had met the same fate as most Abbeys in 1538, where monks were pensioned off and the buildings and contents dismantled. The early stages of the reform……

But coming away, to climb once again ‘over the Edge’ (to a height of 1000ft), we had this radical change of elevation that revealed a beautiful pastoral panorama behind us….

But a highlight of the entertainment programme last night was a presentation by Andrew Sykes of his journey from Tarifa to Nordcapp, a journey of some 7,500km. I can highly recommend his book (available on Amazon).

Bourton on the Water-Northleach-Stow on the Wold (70km)

You can’t go anywhere in the Cotswolds without stumbling across places with quadruple-barrelled names……there are no simple Stows or Bourtons….they have to be ‘on the water’ or ‘on the wold’, or even ‘in marsh’……which means that aspiring wordsmiths like me fail to keep to notional word limits……

But then who needs to be a wordsmith when others come up with the pithy captions for you……?

And when you take your attention off the road, and ignore the dangers that lurk under the waters of a river ford, you are likely to come a cropper…..

…as Alex and Jean did when they tried to cross this on  their tandem…..but happily, it had a positive outcome. Pride had taken a knocking, but no broken bones, and not a scratch on the tandem…….and a over-dinner talking point for years to come. Yep, we will tease them….

With almost unbroken sunshine today, all 460 birthday riders were out on the roads, sometimes descending on the same cafes and adding to the frenetic tourist industry that has become the lifeblood of these parts.

And some of our company see no barriers to getting out and riding……like this hand cyclist whose partner has a rear connector to help push him along. Truly inspiring……

Chipping Camden-Stratford-on-Avon 102km

There were only two options: do we or don’t we? I was linking up with Jean and Alex from Shropshire, and they were tandem riders, and like 460 other cyclists at this festival, we were confronted with the same choices……do we set off in the pouring rain and hope for an improvement or, like so many of them, do we mooch around indoors waiting for better things? Many stayed indoors about the venue, but we……..yes, the heroic ‘we’…..we headed out prepared to get soaked in the morning and (possibly) dry out in the afternoon……and our calculations were spot on.

Even the sun broke through the gloom, zooming along an old rail track, having escaped the tourist-ravaged Stratford and breathed a huge sigh of relief. But the sting in the tail (and tale) was having to climb back into the Cotswolds. The hills round here may be short, but they ain’t half steep!

Alex and Jean are nifty tandem riders. They took full advantage of the many descents, gathering speed and hurtling down the hills. There was no way a solo rider like me was even going to keep up with them…..but then the advantage was on my side when it came to climbing the hills…..there’s some complicated equation at play based on weight, speed and strength……but I don’t fully understand it.

Moreton-in-Marsh – Winchcombe -Snowshill 87km

“I’m riding a sportive” said the cyclist standing by his gleaming carbon bike and popping a couple of tablets in his water bottle. “What are those for?” I asked. “Oh they help with cramp. D’you want one?”. “No, I don’t dope…..” I said. He hesitated, looked at me, was about to say something, when I interrupted him…”You do realise they will be taking a blood sample at the end of the event……”. The expression on his face changed, and I left him to ponder his situation…..I got on my bike, turned to say goodbye, and I knew he had sussed my little ruse.

The forecast for today had been dire, and everyone set off on their chosen routes with expectations of getting very wet. Many did, but those of us who headed west stayed dry all day, even enjoying several hours of late sunshine. 

My route was titled ‘Off the Edge to Winchcombe’, meaning there was a dramatic 17% descent with a hairily tight swithback half way down……both fun and scary at the same time.

But once off the Edge, there was no other way back to Moreton-in-Marsh but to laboriously climb back over it. A local passed it off as being nothing at all, but that was the reaction of a motorist whose only experience of climbing is changing down to a lower gear and going a bit slower…..with no physical penalty to pay. I gave him a smile and prepared myself for the 3km climb up to Snowshill……

139 years ago today……

winged wheel139 years ago today, August 5th 1878, Stanley Cotterell (a medical student) drew together a small group of cycling enthusiasts in Harrogate and formally launched the Bicycle Touring Club, which soon turned into the Cyclists’ Touring Club, so as to allow membership to tricyclists. His first task was to set up a network of hotels that would cater specifically for the needs of cyclists and, by 1881 (just 3 years afterstanley_ja_cotterell-250x280 its foundation) he had established a network of 785 hotels that offered cyclists fixed tariffs and exclusive facilities.

Today, the club is known as Cycling UK, boasts a membership of over 60,000, and for the last 47 years, has celebrated the birthday of the club in August with the annual Birthday Rides. So tomorrow, I will pack my saddlebag once again, strap on my tent, and head over to the Cotswolds, where some 460 fellow cyclists will gather for a week of………well, you’ve guessed it……..bike riding……..along with evening entertainment and presentations, photo competitions, live music, and the inevitable fellowship and camaraderie that exists among many groups of shared interests.map_moreton

We will lodge and camp in the grounds of the Fire Training College in Moreton-in-Marsh, take advantage of their superb facilities, and witness some of the Fire Service trainees at training, while we go about our much more serious business of discovering this beautiful part of the country while enjoying our favourite pastime. It’s a tough life…….

Malin Head: the end 72km

I quietly crept out of the caravan, leaving a ‘thank you’ note to Elaine and Roley, but was greeted to a dank and misty morning. The 14km trek out to the Head had a mighty sting in its tail…..both a headwind and a 20% kick upwards at the end…..but I was treated to a free coffee by a mobile coffee stall perched on the top of the hill.
What had started at Mizen Head 1300km ago, roughly following the Wild Atlantic Way

came to an end at Banba’s Crown at Malin Head,

a name that is well known to insomniacs who hear either, or both, of the shipping forecasts at 00.45 and 05.20 on BBC Radio 4. In the morning sea fret, it had a sense of drama all its own.

Even so early in the morning, a steady flow of people had begun to arrive, some on motorbikes, others in cars, to spend a fleeting few moments, take a “I woz ‘ere” photo, and scurry off to their next destination. Notable by their absence all along my route from the south were other trekking cyclists like myself. Unfortunately, the MizMal route is primarily seen as a classic charity ride, taking the shortest and least interesting route across the heart of the country. When I met people who proudly said they too had ridden the MizMal, I was always disappointed to discover it was invariably with a fully supported charity ride. Doesn’t Ireland have any unsupported adventurers who carry their own stuff and sleep in a tent?
So, now in Derry (Londonderry) to unwind, box the bike for the flight, and spend a few days discovering the fascinating but disturbing past of this troubled community. And the only indication that I was crossing the political border of NI was this sign telling me that kms were changing to miles. I wonder if that will change with Brexit…..?

Gweedore-Malin village 96km

I told Bernard, my camping pitch benefactor, that when he drew back the curtains in the morning he wouldn’t see me. As I crept away at 6.30, he wouldn’t have seen me anyway…..his bedroom was at the back.
All was silent as I cycled out of the village, and made my way through Glenveagh National park, over the huge climb that revealed sights like this

and of Mount Erigal, the highest peak in Donegal

and ‘unprone’ as I am to taking selfies, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of catching a glimpse of my own profile in one of those traffic exit mirrors at the end of a drive….

the route included a brief ferry crossing of Lough Swilly

 and then onwards forging a direct route to Malin village across Inishowen, just 14km short of my destination at Malin Head.

Looking for a pitch for my tent, I met Eileen and Roley

in a little caravan hideaway behind trees, a place they have owned for 30 years,

and they offered me their spare caravan for the night, and Eileen prepared me a chicken salad for supper. It is the fate of the solo traveller to have to accept such spontaneous acts of kindness.

If the BBC weather app is telling the truth, I will arrive at Malin Head, just 14km to the north, tomorrow when it is bathed in unbroken sunshine….so what of this mythical spot which is a star of the shipping forecast and famous for its stormy bad temper?

Glencolumbkille-Gweedore 86km

Was I glad I had left the climb over the Pass of Glengesh till this morning…..the conditions were perfect and the views from the summit had me lingering overlong chatting to a young couple who also couldn’t tear themselves away. They told me of their dream to walk the Camino in Spain, and I told them of the more ancient route along the north coast.

 The descent from the pass was so steep, with tight switchbacks, that I thought the bike was going to run away with me. So glad I was only carrying 9kg of kit. The heavily loaded tourist might have had to walk down…….unless of course he had discs.
Once down into Ardara, it was breakfast time, which stoked me up for a longer stretch to Dungloe. Along the way I passed this team of men gathering in the dried turf, which in this country is used as, and sold for, winter fuel.

 You can still see the odd homesteader cutting his own turves by hand, continuing a tradition that is centuries old.

I chose to stop for the night at Gweedore simply because I liked the sound of the name. Something straight out of Harry Potter……and when I was told a good spot for camping would be down by the beach in the grounds of an abandoned hotel, I took one look at the site and knew I would have visitations from spectres during the night, so I asked a local if I could pitch on a patch of grass opposite his house. “Excuse me, do you own that patch of grass across the road”. “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Why, what you have in mind? To cut it for me?”. This wasn’t going well. “May I pitch my tent for the night?”. “Course you can. Is that all? Where you ridin’ from”. When I told him, this is how he reacted: “Jeez, that’s a fecking long way…..just look at yuh, carryin’ no weight at all”….and I thought he was referring to my luggage, but he said it while patting his own considerable girth. “Suppose yuh want a shower then……”.

And when I stepped out of my tent this morning, this is what I saw…..looking down on the abandoned hotel on the right.

Donegal-Slieve League Cliffs-Glencolumbkille 55km

The morning brought a promise of decent weather but strong winds…..the reality was rather different: I had to wait out heavy rain before getting started, and dodge the showers as they occurred. However, heading due west to take in the dramatic cliffs of Slieve League, the northeasterly wind helped me over the numerous climbs, heading towards yet another remote corner of Ireland where Irish is still the working language.

The Slieve League cliffs have all the drama of the Cliffs of Moher, but without the crowds. They are too distant from anywhere, and they haven’t yet built the critical visitor’s centre that draws in the tour buses, and hence the huge crowds.

When I got to Glencolumbkille, situated right out on the edge of the peninsula, I’d run out of steam, and the thought of turning into the wind to climb over a challenging pass to get to Ardara (stress on final vowel, btw) suddenly lost its charm. Decision made, I looked for a pitch, and the landlord of a local pub kindly allowed me to hunker down on a patch of grass in his car park. 

What is more, his pub will be hosting musicians later on, so I get to be entertained as well……

The village of Glencolumbkille has a very interesting history. From the days of the Famine in the mid 19thC, this part of Ireland has suffered dreadfully from mass migration, simply because there has been no employment. Then along came a priest, Fr McDyer,

 in 1951 who decided he had to do something to stem the flow, and he set about building the folk village (a museum of local life), and fighting vigorously for investment in the infrastructure of the area. His success has made him a legend in these parts, so now I get the opportunity to spend the night in this very special place, where the community is scattered widely across the valley, and the air frequently resounds with the sound of tumbling water as streams come crashing down from the heights.

It is unbelievably beautiful……

Donegal 25km

Although this is meant to be down time from the bike, there were a couple of out-of-town visits I had to make, and one was to a cemetery in the tiny village of Letterbarrow up in the Blue Stack hills. 

You see, it was exactly 50 years ago, almost to the day, that I arrived in Letterbarrow with John and Pat (two class mates), only to discover that John’s great grandmother had died, at the age of 101. Anecdotally, I seem to remember something about her having a fall from a bicycle…..but that could have been just another good old Irish story fuelled by the Guinness. Anyway, I had my very first taste of an Irish wake where the body was laid out in the living room and people filed through the house continuously to pay their respects, and then stopped to have a drink and a chat. And this seemed to go on for a couple of days……and the supply of drink was endless.

As I stood by Annie Kerrigan’s grave in 2017, life really had come full circle, dragging back into my memory space so many forgotten things. Randomly, and nothing to do with Annie’s death, I remember how embarrassingly easy it had been to hitch hike in Northern Ireland in 1967, the year before the outbreak of the troubles. And as I cycled up to Donegal yesterday, I passed through a narrow bottleneck of land only 8km wide where the NI border almost meets the Atlantic. The proximity of NI is also corroborated by the accent in these parts….to me it is almost indistinguishable from the harsher tones and inflections of the six counties. 

Donegal itself is a very small town, but it seemed to be under siege with Spanish and German tourists…..many of whom I encountered on my visit to the medieval castle.

But for one of the best views of the town and its bay, go just a few kms up towards the Blue Stack mountains…..and don’t forget to stop and look back…….😊

Dromahair-Donegal 75km

Serendipities happen aplenty on a journey like this, and they go far beyond discovering what is round the next bend or over the next summit. They abound in the people you meet along the way who have fashioned an extraordinary existence for themselves, overcoming many obstacles in search of their dream.

Rob and Mairead, both passionate about their cycling and walking, are also dedicated organic homesteaders, and I was privileged to be able to overnight at their house, sample the fruits of their organic labours, and share stories of the road. Like us, they are enthusiastic tandemists, and I was impressed to discover that their bespoke-built Thorn tandem was the same colour as the Dave Yates I am currently riding……in fact, it was from an advert of the yellow Thorn that I got the idea to have my new frame sprayed yellow.
When cycling through a country, it is one thing to discover its physical geography and its architectural and artistic beauty, but it is quite another thing to discover the people that live behind the frontages of the thousands of dwellings you pass along the way. I have been very fortunate to meet people like Rob and Mairead who have afforded me a glimpse of Irish life behind the scenes. And the many glimpses I’ve had during this trip have defied all of the stereotypes I’ve carried around in my head for years about Ireland and its people.

I am now in the town of Donegal, where I intend spending a couple of nights, and enjoying some non-bike time. I came here last as a 17 year old with two class mates as we hitch-hiked around Ireland grabbing free accomodation from the many scattered relatives we numbered between us. When we arrived in Donegal, John’s great grandmother had just died at the age of 101, and we found ourselves thrown into the thick of a full traditional Irish wake, followed by the funeral. I remember being bewildered by the whole affair…

Ballysadare-Sligo-Dromahair 50km

I hadn’t realised Sligo had produced so many influential personalities. On a guided walk around the city, we learned a lot about WB Yeats in the birthplace of his maternal family, 

and he is now buried in Drumcliff, just 20km north, having been exhumed from his first place of burial in Paris. Some have serious doubts that they actually transferred his body, and not that of a neighbour in the cemetery.

The first president of a newly independent Peru carried the unlikely name of Bernardo O’Higgins, whose ancestors were from these parts

and the mother of Bram Stoker, the infamous creator of Dracula, had also been born here and, unusually, survived a major cholera epidemic in which most of the local population perished. In fact, the name Dracula is said to have been coined by Bram from two Irish words meaning ‘bad blood’….so scotch the idea that it is a Transylvanian name.

Today has been an opportunity to give the legs a bit of a rest ( but not much) and spend time in this fascinating city, but the soporific heat has made me feel a bit lethargic and lacking in energy. But I came to with a smile when I noticed this sign outside a solicitor’s office……surely not…….Argue and Phibbs?

I then set off for Dromahair, skirting around the beautiful Lough Gill and passing Parkes Castle, till I arrived at the home of Rob and Mairead….but more of that in the next post……

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